SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Launches Into History

First American private-sector-built crew spacecraft docked with the ISS in a landmark flight.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft.  (Image courtesy of NASA.)

The Crew Dragon spacecraft. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

For the first time in history, a commercially-built and operated, American spacecraft and rocket launched from U.S. soil and arrived at the International Space Station. The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off on March 2 on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.

When the astronauts stationed on the ISS entered the Crew Dragon, they used a hatch that hasn’t been opened since the Space Shuttle Atlantis last docked at the station in 2011.

NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take its astronauts to the ISS since then.

If the return trip is a success, SpaceX could fly two NASA astronauts to the ISS as early as July of this year, a mission that would be the first human launch from U.S. soil in almost a decade. SpaceX has already been flying resupply missions to the ISS for years using its Dragon Cargo spacecraft—but the company is eager to start transporting people, too.

Over the next few days, the ISS crew will inspect the inside of the Crew Dragon, take photos of its windows to record how they stood up to the rigors of space travel, and unload some supplies. While there was no spaceman-in-a-Tesla on this flight, a sensor-laden dummy named Ripley and a plush Earth toy did make the trip.

SpaceX Crew Dragon docks with ISS.

“It was just super-exciting to see it,” said Bob Behnken, an astronaut who could be one of Dragon Crew’s first human passengers. “Just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight coming up here.”

So far, this trip has been a rousing success for SpaceX, which was contracted by NASA in 2014 to run commercial crew missions to the ISS—a contract worth $2.6 billion. The Crew Dragon was supposed to deliver astronauts to the station in 2016, but setbacks complicated the spacecraft’s development.

While SpaceX no doubt has earned bragging rights for its successful launch, Boeing is in hot pursuit. The aerospace giant has also been contracted to run commercial crew missions for NASA and could launch an uncrewed flight of its CST-100 Starliner capsule in a few short weeks.

This summer could also see both companies delivering astronauts to the ISS—which could mean the end of NASA buying passage on Russian rockets.

“This mission puts us a step closer toward re-establishing American access of American astronauts, on American rockets, from American soil to the ISS,” said Taber MacCullum, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Read more about the growth of the commercial space industry at Who Will Win The Private Sector Space Race?